From Brazil to Stanford, from sacrifice to stardom for Catarina Macario

Courtesy Stanford

Catarina Macario and No. 1 seed Stanford open the NCAA tournament Saturday against Utah Valley.

Catarina Macario isn't the first little sister to discover soccer by following an older brother to a field. Nor is she the first to decide rather quickly that watching from the sideline wasn't for her. She wouldn't even be the first to follow that path all the way to the Hermann Trophy, college soccer's top individual honor.

But she would be the first to make that journey from a starting point of Sao Luis, Brazil, on fields where the grass is sometimes outlined in pristine white but just as often by makeshift boundaries such as spare sneakers to mark goals and matchups are played out on the street.

She would be the first who traveled quite such a distance, perhaps not in miles but certainly in spirit. The product of a family that split itself across hemispheres to support her, she represents the best of what women's soccer in Latin American could be. Yet as she leads No. 1 Stanford into the NCAA tournament, she is the embodiment of a distinctly American opportunity. She is the best of both worlds.

"Watching her grow up, playing soccer with boys who didn't necessarily care about who she was as a player, didn't respect her," said Steve Macario, the brother she first followed in Sao Luis. "It's definitely very gratifying that she's finally at a place that not only respects it but celebrates it.

"I'm just so glad that people have the opportunity to see that no matter where you're born or where you're from, your dreams still matter."

All Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe knew when he first saw her play as a high schooler for a club team in San Diego was that a Brazilian who had recently moved to the area had a lot of people in the soccer community talking. What he saw was someone who played not like she learned the game an hour or two at a time, once a week in the local youth league, but who played as if she learned the game the way a child learns a first language.

"Stylistically, I loved how she played because it's how I want the Stanford team to play," Ratcliffe recalled. "She's very technical; she's intelligent with the ball, without the ball."

Hockey in Canada. Football in the American South. Soccer in Brazil. These may be overused tropes when it comes to assigning a sport cultural significance to particular populations, but not without some fair grounding in reality. Macario grew up surrounded by soccer, immersed in it.

"People connected over it," Macario said. "You played soccer, you watched soccer. It was a great time. I definitely miss that. Soccer is literally like a religion there, and it's the coolest thing ever if you're a soccer player."

Specifically and still, it's the coolest thing if you are a male player. That is changing. It began changing for and because of a generation led by Marta, who guided the Brazilian women to a World Cup final in 2007 that Macario and so many other girls watched. But as quickly as everything else now moves in our world, change still most often comes gradually. When Macario read a recent letter that Marta wrote to a younger version of herself, many of the hardships resonated. The comments and jokes, the general lack of support from even extended family, it was still her reality even as she played with boys in Sao Luis, a city of roughly a million people in Maranhão, on Brazil's northern coast.

"I just tried to tune that out and do my thing, basically," Macario said. "Throughout my whole life there have been people telling me I shouldn't play soccer, that it wasn't meant to be like that."

When she turned 12, she was told she could no longer play on boys teams. She said there were no opportunities to play on a girls team in or around Brasilia, the capital city to which the family had moved a few years earlier in the interest of mother Ana Maria's job as a surgeon. Whether there were literally no opportunities at all, or none with the requisite level of organization and support to continue her development, the family, at the insistence of dad Jose, the same man initially resistant to her playing at all, settled on a drastic solution.

Jose, Steve and Catarina would move to San Diego, where Catarina could play for an American club team. From there she could hopefully earn a college scholarship. Ana Maria would remain in Brazil and help support the effort financially, both the language barrier and professional hurdles making it impractical to pursue a medical license in the United States.

Courtesy Stanford

Stanford freshman Catarina Macario, the Pac-12 forward of the year, says people connected over soccer in Brazil.

Needless to say, uprooting their lives wasn't easy. Only Steve, two years older than Catarina, spoke English with any fluency, leaving it to the teenager to handle much of the communication. It left him ashamed, he said, to see people judging his dad not as the proud man Steve knew, but as something less than competent because he couldn't speak the language.

"It was kind of a crazy vision," said Steve, now a junior studying film and theater at USC. "But I think we all knew that my sister's talent was something to take a chance on."

Gifted technically with the ball at her feet or bending shots into the corners of the net, she also holds her own athletically in an American game that prizes speed and strength. Now 18, she enters her first NCAA tournament with 14 goals and 10 assists, not merely the only freshman but the only player from a major conference to reach double digits in both. Given that success as the Pac-12 forward of the year and that Stanford is the tournament's closest thing to a prohibitive favorite, there appears a strong case to be made for her as the first freshman to win the Hermann.

When I play soccer, it just feels like everything falls into place.
Catarina Macario

Teresa Noyola, Kelley O'Hara and Christen Press each won the Hermann Trophy playing for Stanford during Ratcliffe's time as coach. All were immediate contributors as freshmen. So he knew what he had when Macario arrived, but he didn't necessarily expect this kind of season.

"It's always a question mark for me," Ratcliffe said. "The transition from club soccer to college soccer can be difficult for some players, and it's never certain. You can see talent, but you wonder how it will translate. The thing I give the most credit to Catarina for is her level of maturity and her professionalism about her training. She came in fit, she's worked extremely hard and she's very mature. She takes the game seriously and she's passionate about it."

She and her family faced a choice. Either give up the game she loved and carry on with their lives in Brazil, or give up the lives they knew so she could pursue that passion in a new country. It is the kind of choice that will make a person take the opportunity to play the game seriously.

She considers the United States home. A green card holder, she wants to become a citizen. And she wants to represent the U.S. on the soccer field, having already been afforded a few chances to train with youth national teams. There will be complications to deal with even before she gets a chance to audition on the field at a senior level, most notably a FIFA rule that requires someone representing a country to reside there for five years beyond their 18th birthday before they are eligible to play, barring extenuating circumstances. (Waivers are generally reserved for political refugees, as in the case of Danish international and Afghan refugee Nadia Nadim.)

But greater obstacles have stood in her way already. So she will do what she has always done. She will continue to play the game, unsure why she is unable to shake the hold it has on her.

"I ask myself that question every day," Macario said. "I love everything about soccer. Just how it brings people together. The way the ball feels when I touch it. When I play soccer, it just feels like everything falls into place. I really don't know how to put it into words, but it is just something that I'm so passionate about and I can't picture doing anything else."

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